The Kids and the New Coal Mine

by Shawn Crawford

Justin Bieber, poster child for our very modest proposal

In 1904 America, of boys between the ages of ten to fifteen, 26% worked full time away from home.  In the textile mills of New England, children began working at age six for twelve to sixteen hour shifts.  When dozing off, cold water would be thrown on them.  Ingrates.  At the turn of the twentieth century, 70% of children working as migrant pickers in Colorado’s fields had become deformed from the labor.

Given the horrendous conditions, one would think child labor laws sped their way through congress at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Instead, a decades-long battle saw legislators bellowing for the rights of business owners and decrying the laziness of the American worker.  Chief among these was Weldon Heyburn, an Idaho senator and Theodore Roosevelt’s nemesis.  Heyburn thought anyone, including children, that didn’t work from sunup to sundown an idler.  And the rights of the business owner had to remain sacred; if someone wanted to hire a fetus to dig coal then by god the government had to protect that right.  One can only assume today’s health-care debate would have caused Heyburn’s head to explode.

But after the hysteria and grandstanding and rhetoric died down, sensible child labor laws became established, including the complete banning of children from certain occupations.  The pace of industrialization simply outran most people’s understanding of what children could safely do, and as always certain ruthless businesses were happy to exploit the situation.  Besides which, the idea of childhood as a distinct time of development separate from adulthood remained a new and contentious idea.  For years, children existed as miniature adults, and the faster they took up the work and learned the realities of the adult world the better.  Both culture and science would come to understand children as different from adults on all levels: emotionally, physically, and psychologically.

But as we usually do, Americans have forgotten their past and proved incapable of applying former lessons to new contexts.  Because while we protect children from labor and most other unpleasant adult responsibilities, we have no problem unleashing them to run free in all the perks of adulthood.

So children have cell phones, wide screen televisions, multiple gaming platforms, Facebook pages, and a gadget attached to them nearly every waking minute.  The Kaiser Family Foundation learned that kids age 8 to 18 spend over seven and a half hours a day with an electronic device.  And because they are masters of multitasking with more than one gadget, they cram eleven hours of media content into that time.

Debating the merits of allowing such behavior can be left to another discussion.  Let us focus instead on what this constant consumption has produced: an endless need to provide content and to increasingly provide it to younger and younger children.  And those that produce entertainment have discovered that kids like to watch and listen to other kids.  Generally in one of two forms: 1) In the context of transgression, where peers their age engage in behaviors and a life beyond their years (Most often with parents and adults that have received some sort of moral lobotomy); 2) In the context of a fantasy life with wealth and fame beyond imagination.  This content generally starts as movies and television shows and leads to record deals for everyone involved that feature heavy doses of Auto-Tune.

Two examples far enough in the past that will avoid criticizing children. For the first, consider iCarly, the Nickelodeon show that featured a group of very young tweens and teens (when the show began), producing their own webcast.  The kids appeared to live in some sort of teen nirvana co-op in Seattle.  And believe me, teen spirit never smelled so good.  Carly’s father (a mom was never mentioned) lived on a submarine (The ultimate kid fantasy: untoppable bragging rights coupled with no supervision), and I assume Carly received some sort of nourishment and not much else from her twentyish brother.  Forget kids wanting to live this life: I wanted to live in that apartment building.  The kids had unlimited access to the latest technology and did nothing but get into awkward, adolescent versions of Three’s Company plots every episode.  I kept expecting the ghost of Don Knotts to roam the halls.

For the second, look no further than the Miley Cyrus juggernaut that was Hannah Montana. This show brilliantly fathomed pop culture’s soul to produce the perfect teen fantasy: normal life by day, unending adulation by night without the paparazzi and rehab.  Hannah had a double identity that allowed her to just be one of the girls at her school and then transform into a pop superstar with no one being the wiser.

These franchises created rabid child fans and enormous piles of cash.  The Miley Cyrus kingdom allowed her to be the first star to sign TV, movie, music, and merchandise deals with Disney, and Miranda Cosgrove, the star of iCarly, made a staggering $180,000 per episode of her show. That doesn’t include the aforementioned Auto-Tuned music she cranked out.  The pressure to wring every dollar out of these kids before they lose their cute or go Lindsay Lohan on everyone is immense. Add in parents that often push their children because of their own sad needs for attention, and you get an environment where everyone except the children seem to profit.

We have reached a point where children have no more business working in entertainment than they do hauling coal out of a mineshaft.  You simply cannot expect a child to handle the pressure, money, and social media scrutiny of modern celebrity.  And leaving these decisions up to parents is ludicrous; even Billy Ray Cyrus, father of Miley, a man that has been chewed up by the machine could not manage his daughter through the system because the world he thought he understood had changed at light speed.

We, the public, comprise too much of a danger and children must be protected from us in our culture. Let Chuck Klosterman explain using the pop star that began this current iteration of underage celebrity:

A person like Britney Spears surrenders her privacy and her integrity and the rights to her own persona, and in          exchange we give her huge sums of money.  But she still doesn’t earn a fraction of what she warrants in a free-trade cultural economy.  If Britney Spears were paid $1 every time a self-loathing stranger used her as a surrogate for his own failure, she would out earn Warren Buffett in three months . . . We use them for things that are worth more than money.  It’s a new kind of dehumanizing slavery—not as awful as the literal variety, but dehumanizing nonetheless.  (Eating the Dinosaur)

I have no patience for those that try to portray these kids as spoiled or ungrateful or anything else.  They simply suffer abuse wrapped up in a giant fantasy world, and I can understand any response from anger to drugs to violence in the attempt to deal with the bewildering ways they get used, manipulated, and then discarded for the Next Shiny Thing.  By the same people that claimed to love them and want nothing but their success and happiness.  And we can’t simply turn away; we have to burn our idols to the ground to prove they were never worthy our admiration.  I’m not sure even adults can remain sane in this environment, I’m looking at you . . . um, everyone in Hollywood, but I like to believe they at least have some choice when they enter the Funhouse.

So in the midst of this sad state of affairs, I offer you a perfectly modest proposal.  Add the entertainment industry to the banned list of occupations for children.  The thought that we could have been spared Justin Bieber alone makes the idea worthwhile.   How would the law operate?  First, the industry would have a set number of years to wind down their current projects that involve children.  The ratings and revenue from say, the Last Boy Band Ever, would stagger the imagination and soften the blow.

After the grace period, strict guidelines would go into effect.  No children under the age of 21 in professional show business.  Including reality shows.  There will be a special circle of hell for TLC and MTV.   I assume Jon and Kate’s children torturing the producers of these shows will be involved, although the Duggars will somehow manage to conceive even beyond the grave.  Extend the ban to the internet because the exploitation on YouTube and other places can be even more disturbing, including breaking current child labor laws.  The only exception: babies for the cutesy, teary, scene right after mom gives birth in the elevator or taxi or wherever else that isn’t a hospital because of idiot dad’s wacky hi-jinks.

Would civilization collapse?  No.  As just one example, the cast of Glee wouldn’t have had to go anywhere since all of them had reached middle-age already.  Similar adjustments would be made elsewhere.  I Love Raymond demonstrated you could have a show about a house full of children without ever seeing them.  Children’s programming could go back to animation, puppets, and repeats of Gilligan’s Island.  I was a Mary Ann guy in case you were wondering. Entertainment would adapt just like it always has and find new ways to suck our wallets dry without resorting to the use of creativity or quality.  The law would simply accelerate the technology that will lead to all entertainment being computer generated anyway, and James Cameron will literally become King of the World.

When later generations asked their grandparents why kids worked in such horrific conditions at the turn of the twentieth century they probably shrugged and said, “we didn’t know any better.”  Perhaps some day we will do the same when our grandchildren ask us why kids were allowed to work in the pitiless environment of the entertainment industry.  Or is the truth we already know better but refuse to admit our own complicity in stealing the innocence of children in the name of a moment of diversion from our own harsh realities?